The Liberated Africans of Berbice, 1841 – 1865

By Shammane Joseph

This article will give a brief overview of the arrival of the Liberated Africans to Berbice and will focus on their journey, settlement and development of the county of Berbice during the period 1841 to 1865.

After Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, it escalated its campaign to end the slave trade everywhere, by the use of military squadrons which patrolled international waters freeing all captured slaves found on slave ships. They were then sent to British dependencies and areas like Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. There the British – Brazilian court of mixed commission or a mixed international commission court reviled the ships and liberated the Africans. Hence the name Liberated Africans.

There were 13,563 Liberated Africans who came to Guyana from Rio de Janeiro (1,578), St Helena, Sierra Leone and West Africa; some were also conscripted from The Bahamas. The Liberated Africans came from Rio de Janeiro to British Guiana in 1841-1852, St Helena 1842-1865, and from the Kru coast of Liberia 1845-1853. There was an increase in Liberated Africans from Rio de Janeiro because the slave trade had increased due to the expansion of the Brazilian sugar industry, and this led to the great demand for African slaves. The Liberated Africans from Rio were reluctant immigrants; they had no say as to where they wanted to go. The British Government agreed to the re-settlement of the Liberated Africans because it was one way of finding permanent settlement for them among those who were being sheltered at British bases at the Crowns ‘expense. More so, with the ending of the British slave trade and slavery, the Liberated Africans were seen as a rich source of labour for colonial Guyana plantations.

There were several ordinances passed to govern Immigration in British Guiana. However, the rules and regulations that governed the other immigrants were not used to govern the Liberated Africans. At the beginning of their re-settlement in British Guiana from Rio, St Helena and Sierra Leone most of the Liberated Africans were sent to plantations in Berbice. The first group of captured Africans arrived in British Guiana at port Berbice from Rio de Janeiro on May 11th 1841. One hundred and fifty captured Africans came on the vessel Dias de Favreire. Nine died and six were hospitalized. They were sent to the plantations in Berbice, such as, Blairmont, Balthyock, Canefield, Everton, Friends, Providence and Rose Hall. On September 6th 1841 another group of one hundred and twenty nine captured Africans arrived on the Venezuela from Rio de Janeiro at port Demerara and they were sent to New Forest, Reliance, Goldstone Hall, Smithson Place, Prospect, Cotton Tree, Woodley Park, Eliza and Mary, Skeldon, Providence and Friends. No deaths were recorded, but 5 were hospitalized. This was because there was a Surgeon on board this ship who took care of the sick. Moreover, this ship was chartered by Governor Light to transport the Liberated Africans to Demerara. Two hundred and ninety nine captured Africans arrived on Lady Rowena at port Georgetown on November 1st 1841, and were sent to Albion, Eliza and Mary, Hanover, Lochaber, and Mary’s Hope. In March 1842 the merchant ship Zulmeina brought one hundred and fifty six Liberated Africans to Demerara, there were eleven deaths. They were shipped to Berbice plantations Smithson Place, Prospect, Cotton Tree, Woodley Park, Eliza and Mary.  They were distributed as nearly as possible in numbers and regards were given of course to family ties. The transport costs from Demerara to Berbice were defrayed by the plantations receiving them. In Berbice, the plantations selected were favourably situated on the sea coast. This was evident with the arrival of one hundred and forty captured Africans on January 21st 1842. The estates such as Skeldon, Eliza and Mary, Hampshire, Port Mourant and Mary’s Hope were all located on the East Sea Coast and they were given fourteen liberated Africans each. The plantations located on the West Sea Coast, Cotton Tree, Nos. 17 and 18, Hope/Experiment, Waterloo and Foulis were given the same amount. However, the Emigration General had expected twenty to each estate. Also, the estates chosen had vacant cottages that were suitable to accept the Liberated Africans. They could not be placed on one estate because of the discomfort which might have ensued. If cleanliness was not ensured there may have been outbreak of diseases. On some estates the buildings were suited to be only temporary dwellings. Whenever the captured Africans arrived in British Guiana, Africans from Berbice were taken to Demerara to speak to them about the comforts and happiness of their friends at Berbice. On 30th November 1842, three hundred and fourteen captured Africans were brought to British Guiana by the Brig Anne from Rio be Janeiro, and they were dispatched to Berbice. The cost of their importation was $5812.50. The following is a break down of the expenses.

Provisioning and fitting Brig Anne                                                    –  £315.16
Charter of the Brig Anne                                                                        –   600.00
Provisioning and fitting Steamer                                                       –   352.05
Estimated expenses to be incurred                                                  –  $ 130.
Three officers expenses in Demerara                                               –  $120
Officers passage to England at £ 50 each £150
Passage money
74 men at $25                                                                                            – $1850
77 women $25                                                                                           – $1925
98 boys                                                                                                          – $12.10
65 girls                                                                                                           – $12.10

The cost of transporting the liberated Africans was approved by the Court of Policy and the money was taken out of the Immigration Fund. The British Government did not own ships that were used specifically to transport the Liberated Africans to British Guiana.  The ships used were all privately owned, moreover the colonial government of Guiana had insisted on a set bounty for each Liberated African. Many ship owners thought that the sum was too low and had asked Governor Henry Light to issue a proclamation increasing the bounty to $35.00, because the present rate at $25.00 was insufficient for the purpose. This was not done and as a result, in 1842 the Agent for Emigration to British Guiana had to inform the Governor that the British ships’ arrival at Rio were depleting and the consequences of this was a great increase in the price of freight and there was great difficulty in chartering vessels suitable for the transporting of the Liberated Africans.  The British Guiana government had only allowed a particular amount for the expense of transporting these people, but their transportation cost far exceeded that allowance. Sometimes the Liberated Africans were detained on the designated ships for long periods before their arrival in Guiana, thus causing their maintenance to be augmented. It was easier to have the Liberated African from Rio sent to the Cape of Good Hope than getting a ship to transport them to British Guiana. He further suggested that the colonial government send a vessel every four months. This was done when the Venezuela was sent and a large number of Liberated Africans were removed from Rio and taken to British Guiana and Trinidad. If the British Guiana colonial government had chartered its own ship to transport the Liberated Africans from Rio the advantages would have been immense, for example many times the Africans who boarded the private vessels would leave these ships and there were circumstances where some were captured and enslaved, the problem of overcrowding would have also been eliminated along with the problem of contagion. Moreover,  there would have been freedom from all interruptions on the part of Brazilian authorities and this would have been ensured by the ships’ pendant, an immunity rarely enjoyed by any merchant vessel employed in any service connected with the suppression of the Slave Trade; and the necessity of detaching parts of the crews of the Ships-of – war in order to navigate vessels chartered for this special service, and who would have found it difficult to rejoin their ships after a lapse of many months would have been eliminated. Ships were chartered to bring emigrants from Sierra Leone to British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad but the Liberated Africans in Rio de Janeiro were transported here by merchant vessels much to the inconvenience of the Africans.

The Sierra Leonians and other tribal Africans like the Kongos had control of where and how they worked; they changed employment as their interest dictated. They were voluntary immigrants. This was not true for the Liberated Africans from Rio. They were placed on specific plantations as indentured immigrants, much to their annoyance but by the late 1840s when the economic crisis came, this arrangement was a blessing.

The Creoles and the Liberated Africans did not always get along; there were instances where fights had to be broken up between the two groups, this occurred in Mara, on the Berbice River estate.  In the 1840s, the Africans were the main immigrant group; they forced the Creole laborers to work harder and in effect reduced wages. The un-indentured Africans had no guarantee of food and housing, that is why during the sugar strikes in the 1840s all Africans located in Canjie, Berbice worked. They never struck. In Mahaica-Abary they struck for several weeks then returned to work, whilst those on the Berbice River supported the strike until April. As the economic crisis of the 1840s deepened, the practice of obeah increased and this saw to clashes between the Roman Catholics and the Kru men who practiced it. As a result, the colonial authorities placed a ban on this practice in 1855, especially since the Roman Catholic Portuguese were the regular supporters of it in Berbice. Nevertheless, the Africans were quite successful in forming settlements amongst themselves they bought lands on the open markets and even petitioned the government for land grants. They joined Christian churches, sent their children to school and passed on their languages, music, stories to their children and grandchildren.   The first Liberated African village was located at Overwinning, behind Ishalton and on Providence estate. In 1854 eighty Liberated Africans who were employed at the Blairmont estate moved into Ithaca village to be nearer to their church. Even today Ithaca is seen as a haven for African music, dance and oral traditions. They were known for having money, which they buried in the ground and would later, retrieve same. In 1851, forty-five African immigrants lived in Leeds on the Courantyne. Here they planted Corn, rice, raised cattle, goats and pigs; they were known for their Minje-Marma dances and the practice of obeah. In Rosehall, the newcomers were usually greeted by drumming from an old African male, and they also acted as interpreters for new arrivals. They were able to enter the Creole villages and reinforced the communities that the African slaves and their descendants had established.

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